Welcome to another edition of the Happy Slam, my favourite tennis Grand Slam and a yearly excuse to live on a crazy schedule for two weeks (well.. guess not this time), complain about the organization’s deficient handling of the scorching weather conditions, admire the raucous crowds and pity a boatload of injuries caused by the short off-season.
The Australian Open, held on the marvellous city of Melbourne, is also the Grand Slam of the Asia-Pacific and the festive environment usually boasts the region’s best players towards surprising runs. However, the retirement of China’s Li Na, the most successful tennis player in Asia and the reigning female Champion is a tough blow to those ambitions and a big loss for the tournament. Last year’s US Open Champion, Croatian Marin Cilic is also missing in Melbourne due to shoulder injury.
Both single’s draws were completed Friday morning, with a spirited Li Na leading the proceedings, and I used them as a starting point to anticipate some of the most interesting matches the tournament will offer its enthusiasts. As usual, I’ll start with the ladies.
World number one and a five-time winner in Melbourne, Serena Williams got a smooth draw to navigate through the first week. The 33-year-old American debuts against an unknown Belgium player, Alison Van Uytvank, and she could face the injury-plagued Vera Zvonareva in the second, which would have been a tough challenge three to four years ago when the Russian was a top 10 player. Then, her first seeded opponent should be Ukrainian’s Elina Svitolina (26th seed), a 20-year-old still without relevant Grand Slam experience. However, the rest of the first quarter has some tough opposition lurking and Williams will have to ramp up his attention when she faces the likes of emerging Spanish talent Garbine Muguruza (24) or, maybe, Serbian veteran Jelena Jankovic (15). The bottom part of the first quarter is the most interesting of the whole draw. Last year’s runner-up Dominika Cibulkova (11th) is at the top, facing Belgium’s Kirsten Flipkens to begin the tournament, and Serena’s best friend forever, Caroline Wozniacki (8th) closes it, confronting Taylor Townsend, one of the members of USA’s new tennis generation.
The Dane should then oppose the winner of the most highly anticipated encounter of the first round. Former world number one and AO’s winner in 2012 and 2013, Viktoria Azarenka, currently in the 41st position, was the player to watch on the draw and the unlucky task fell in the hands of 2013 semi-finalist Sloane Stephens, another player that barely missed the seeded positions. The 21-year-old American hasn’t met the expectations set for her over the last few seasons and that could prove fatal for his ambitions in Australia, the place that watched the biggest win of her career, a beating of Serena Williams on the 2013’s quarter-finals. Azarenka and Stephens clash for the third year in a row at Melbourne Park, with the Belarusian getting through both times.
The second quarter of the draw is headed by Czech Petra Kvitova (4), the Wimbledon Champion who’s yet to reach a final in Australia, and her path towards the semi-final hides some dangers. One of Donna Vekic, an up-and-coming 18-year-old Croatian, or the daring but inconsistent Monna Barthel could cause some troubles on the second round, and later she may have to handle the home support for Casey Dellacqua (29) or Samantha Stosur (20), herself a former Grand Slam Champion (US Open, 2011). German Andrea Petkovic(13), who returned to her best in 2014, is another contender in this part of the draw, while in the books could be a possible quarter-final encounter between Kvitova and the crafty Agnieszka Radwanska (6), fresh of appointing Martina Navratilova as her new coach. In alternative there’s also the older Williams sister, Venus (18), who started the season claiming a title in Auckland and is back on the top 20 for the first time since 2010.
The third quarter of the draw is supposed to result in a battle between Serbian Ana Ivanovic (5) and Romanian Simona Halep (3) for a semi-final spot, but to get there they’ll have to survive a horde of worthy opponents. Ivanovic has a clear path till the third-round where she may need to get the best of Swiss Belinda Bencic (32), a 17-year-old phenomenon who earned WTA Newcomer of the year honours in 2014, or German Julia Goerges, coming off a terrible 2014 season that saw her drop outside of the top 100. Later, the Serbian beauty could meet Czech Fed Cup winner Karolina Pliskova (22), who followed up a breakthrough 2014 with a promising start in 2015, losing to Kvitova at the Sidney Final, or the underrated Ekaterina Makarova (10), a two-time quarter-finalist in Melbourne and a semi-finalist at the 2014 US Open. In turn, Halep, who has been bothered by gastroenteritis at the start of this season, won’t have an easy first-round encounter, battling experienced Italian Karin Knapp, and things can get even dicier if she can’t get her form quickly after that. Probable third round opponent Sabine Lisicki (28) is always a threat and the prospect of facing a warrior like Sara Errani (14) after that isn’t soothing.
The final quarter of the Women’s draw has everyone drooling over a possible quarter-final showdown between Maria Sharapova (2) and Eugenie Bouchard (7), but at least the young Canadian will have to keep focused on taking care of business first. With or without the support of the Genie Army, the 20-year-old may struggle to cope with the pressure of defending last year’s semi-final performance and a veteran like Svetlana Kuznetsova (27) could pose a serious challenge, as well as former Wimbledon semi-finalist Angelique Kerber (9). On the other end, the Russian superstar will probably breeze past the early rounds, with Romanian Sorana Cirstea, on the second round, and Czech Lucie Safarova, on the fourth, appearing as her main competitors.
On the men’s side, like had happened early on the women’s draw, the unseeded player everyone wanted to avoid fell on the first quarter. Juan Martin Del Potro is back after almost a year out battling his recurring wrist injury and the former US Open Champion will face Polish head-case Jerzy Janowicz to start the competition. If the Argentinian is successful, an explosive battle with Gael Monfils (17) is in the cards for the second round, a match that promises to excite a boisterous Rod Laver Arena. Spaniards Feliciano Lopes (12) and Roberto Bautista-Agut (13) are also in this part of the draw, as is American number one John Isner (19), local favorite Lleyton Hewitt, on his record-setting 19th participation in the tournament, and 2009 semi-finalist Fernando Verdasco (31), a player that on his best days can create some havoc in a possible third round matchup against Novak Djokovic (1). Despite this, the world number one and four-time winner in Melbourne should, with more or less difficulties, reach the quarter-finals where Canadian Milos Raonic (8) is expected to be his opponent.
Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka (4), the title holder, leads the second quarter of the draw and hopes to advance all the way to the semi-finals and towards a dreamy third consecutive meeting with Novak Djokovic, after both players split the victories in the previous years. To get there, Wawrinka, who begins the tournament playing Turkish Marsel Ilhan, must confirm his superiority defeating the less than impressive field that stands on his way till the quarter-finals. On the last eight, Stan will probably face the US Open finalist, Japanese Kei Nishikori (5), who has a tricky first round encounter with Spain’s Nicolas Almagro, or the dogged David Ferrer (9), another player that may be bothered on the first round by Brazilian Thomas Bellucci, and later will have to work to see off compatriot Marcel Granollers or Gilles Simon (18), of France.
On the top part of the other side of the draw, Tomas Berdych (7) and Rafael Nadal (3) are clear favourites, but the Czech has some barriers to clear until they meet on the quarter-finals. Two talented players in German Phillip Kohlschreiber (22) or Latvian Ernests Gulbis (11) could confront him on the fourth round, and Australian Bernard Tomic is also in this portion of the draw, even if the 22-year-old has been absent from the best results.
Nadal, returning to the Tour after missing most of the latter part of last season, faces the unpredictable Mikail Youzhny on the first round and should meet Czech Lukas Rosol (28) a few days later, reconnecting with the player that eliminated the perennial Roland Garros Champion at Wimbledon in 2012 and almost repeated the feat in the same venue last year. The gifted Richard Gasquet (24) and big-serving South-African Kevin Anderson (14) complete the list of players that hope to catch the Spanish legend off-guard.
The last quarter of the draw has Roger Federer (2) at the bottom, Andy Murray (6) at the top and a collection of interesting fellows in between. The Scot shouldn’t experience major troubles until the fourth round where Grigor Dimitrov (10) must stand in his way if everything goes according to the plan. However, the Bulgarian faces a dangerous Dustin Brown to start the tournament and the rapidly improving David Goffin (20), who finished 2014 on a tear, may also block his path later on. Meanwhile, Federer’s portion is also packed with fascinating opponents, from the youngest player in the draw, 18-year-old Croatian Borna Coric, to the most recent promise of Australian tennis (and Wimbledon quarter-finalist) Nick Kirgyos. Not to mention the veterans Tommy Robredo (15) and Ivo Karlovic (23), who recently defeated Novak Djokovic in Doha.
The Australian Open starts on Monday, 19th of January, and the Men’s final is scheduled for the 1st of February, with the women’s decisive match taking place a day earlier.